Americans have a long history of blaming the poor for being poor. As if living in poverty wasn’t hard enough, we seem compelled to make it harder.
The notion that poverty stems from individual failure is deeply carved into the façade of the American subconscious. Many Americans, including poor ones, believe that poor people are lazy and don’t work hard enough. This assumption, that poor people are poor because they choose to be, is so pervasive that even our policymakers and elected officials – elected to, among other things, represent and advocate for the poor – believe it to be true.
Recently, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) indicated that poverty results from poor decision making. President Trump has previously suggested that poor people are poor because they are “morons.” And our Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, notoriously referred to poverty as “a state of mind.”
Yet there is a notable absence of evidence in support of the idea that poverty is a consequence of how one thinks. On the contrary, research suggests the opposite: how one thinks, or the state of one’s mind, is a consequence of poverty, not a cause.
This is exactly what a team of economists and psychologists recently demonstrated in a pair of rigorous experiments. They showed that simply thinking about a difficult financial decision resulted in poorer performance on a series of reasoning tasks. The authors suggest that for low-income individuals, financial strain places excessive demands on mental resources, which can interfere with basic thinking.
So, in a sense, poverty does involve a “state of mind,” but one that is a result of being poor—not the other way around. Encouragingly, this also suggests a possibility for change. To the degree that poverty causes mental strain (and the array of risks that come with that), improving the conditions of those living in poverty can alleviate it.
One of the most detrimental consequences of living in poverty is stress. As anyone who has ever faced financial hardships can attest, the stress of worrying about money is distracting, at best, and – more often – overwhelming. For people who persistently face serious financial burdens, the stress can actually damage mental and physical health. Low-income individuals often have higher levels of stress hormones, which when chronically elevated, increase their risk for a range of health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes, as well as depression and anxiety.
Stress can also be transmitted from a pregnant mother to her fetus, changing the child’s brain development before he or she is even born. Indeed, differences between high- and low-income children have been found in the early years of life in key brain areas important for memory, attention, language, and emotion. These differences contribute to reduced academic achievement and educational attainment, emotional and behavioral problems in later childhood, and lower income and worse employment outcomes in adulthood.
Yet, surely no one would blame a child—let alone a fetus—for their living conditions. This is not just a moral issue, but a logical one. We can blame the parents, as people often do. But if the parent was also born into poverty, then is such blame really any different than blaming a child?
And if we can’t do this – if we can’t shift the blame into a comforting myth that focuses on individual responsibility – then how do we break the cycle of poverty?
As it turns out, there is substantial evidence that educational and social approaches can both interrupt and prevent many of poverty’s most negative consequences, even after early adversity. These range from early childhood education to revamped approaches to social welfare.
For example, in a large randomized control trial using a program called Tools of the Mind, low-income children who attended higher quality kindergarten classrooms had greatly improved reading, vocabulary, and math skills in first grade.
Another experiment, called Moving to Opportunity, demonstrated that even something as simple as changing neighborhoods can improve outcomes for families in poverty. High-poverty families were given vouchers to relocate to low-poverty neighborhoods. Years later, those who moved had significantly higher incomes and improved mental and physical health.
Both the brain and behavior are remarkably malleable. When children and adults are provided with the resources and means to not just cope with, but actually overcome the consequences of poverty, they can do so.
Contrary to popular rhetoric, what we know about poverty indicates that it is not a state of mind, but a state of one’s conditions. Perhaps then we should to start thinking about poverty differently—not in terms of individual pathology, but in terms of social policy. It’s time we stop blaming individuals for society’s problems, and erase this particular – and harmful – American fairy tale.
Stephen Braren is a PhD student at NYU Steinhardt who studies cognitive and brain development in contexts of socioeconomic inequality